CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 1 North Carolina’s home opener end up as the snoozer that most expected, although for different reasons, as the Tar Heels played to the level of their overmatched opponent for much of Sunday’s 92-65 victory.
UNC, two days after a strong season-opening performance against Temple, played less like the nation’s top team and more like one going through the motions without its best player. Senior All-America guard Marcus Paige sat out his second straight game with a broken right hand.
Fairfield, coming off back-to-back 7-win seasons, pulled within 28-27 with 6:11 to play in the first half, not due to a hot shooting start so much as UNC settling for 3-pointers against its zone and being outworked on the boards.
“Needless to say, the score doesn’t tell the story of the game,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters after the game. “I thought we had a lack of execution, a lack of effort and toughness out there early, and they had all of those things that we didn’t have. We were fortunate.”
The Tar Heels missed nine of their first 10 3-point attempts in the opening 11 minutes, although Williams was more frustrated by his post players’ lack of movement than the early reliance on perimeter shooting. UNC connected on seven of its final 13 3-point field goals.
The Stags, one of the worst rebounding teams nationally a season ago, were outrebounded by Yale, 47-24, in their season opener on Friday. They were competitive on the glass throughout against the nation’s top-ranked team, trailing by a 25-20 margin at halftime. UNC increased that differential to 45-39 by game’s end.
“It was a weird game,” Williams said. “We couldn’t catch the ball. We had a couple of times on turnovers where the ball would bounce right to us, and we would fumble it, step on it, those kinds of things. I think you don’t do those things if you’re into it more mentally. I think we needed to be into it a lot more mentally than we were.”
Jerry Johnson’s 3-pointer with five second remaining before halftime cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 40-32 at the break. That set in motion a fiery locker room rant by Williams, according to sophomore wing Justin Jackson.
“He just challenged us,” Jackson said. “If we love the game, why are we playing like that? Because we were playing as if we really didn’t care. I think everybody took that as we’re letting everybody down…
“We just didn’t come out like we were supposed to. They came out and they wanted it a little bit more than us. I think once we came out in the second half, after being challenged by Coach and all of our assistants, I think we definitely sat down and got a few more stops than we did in the first half. That allowed us to run and gun a little bit and get more buckets.”
Nate Britt scored 11 of his career-high 17 points during a five-minute stretch in the second half to keep the Stags at a distance before his teammates pitched in to secure the victory with a 22-4 spurt.
Williams said after the game that he wasn’t surprised by the sloppy game, given his insistence on playing nine or 10 guys. While that depth ultimately wore down the Stags, the learning process involved with defining roles early in a season can trend toward loose play.
“I’m concerned about the way we played today, but I’m not worried about our team," Williams said.